Tag Archives: Latin Literature

Catullus, George Eliot and Soul-Sickness: A Translation of Carmen 76

Classes will be starting up for me soon and this fall I am very excited that I will, once again,  be teaching a Catullus course to my upper level Latin students.  As I was looking through my notes and preparing my course materials, I was lingering on the Roman poet’s Carmen 76 which, for many reasons, is difficult to teach.  Instead of going through his poems in numerical order (there are 116 poems in his corpus), I group them by theme: The Lesbia poems, the friendship and enmity poems, the poems about poetry.  Poem 76 falls into the Lesbia set of poems and it is the very last one I translate with my classes; for me it is the ultimate end of their love affair and he references many of the other poems he has previously written about her in this elegy.  In my mind this is most definitely the end of the affair.

Students always struggle with this poem because of the syllogism in the first few lines, the indirect speech, infinitives, etc.  But they also have a difficult time with the subject matter.  They have no patience for Catullus and his sick heart; time and again I hear them argue that he is weak, whining, feckless and on and on.  For a group of people who are prone to melodrama and tend towards emotional ebullience (I say this with the utmost love and affection for them), one would think that they would have more sympathy with or even empathy for Catullus.   But, alas, this is never the case.  It could be, I’ve always thought,  that they recognize in him the very qualities which they abhor in themselves; he mirrors the sentiments in the shows that they watch and music that they listen to.  Perhaps he is all-too familiar to them.  Or, as I also suspect, the depth of their emotions hasn’t quite reached the levels of soul-sickness that Catullus displays—they have yet, luckily, to get their little hearts broken like our dear poet.  Whatever the reasons for their distaste,  I will give it my best try, once again, to teach this poem and elicit a bit of tenderness for Catullus’s lost love.

I offer here my own translation of lines 10-26 of Carmen 76,  my favorite piece of the poem:

But why should you crucify yourself any longer?
Why don’t you settle your mind and walk away
from this and, even if the universe is against you,
stop being so wretched. It is difficult to put aside
a long love affair; it is, indeed, very difficult; but
put it aside by whatever means necessary. This will be your
only salvation, and you must conquer this: You need to do
this whether you think it is possible or not. Oh gods, if
there is any way for you to show mercy, and if you’ve
ever brought a man relief on his deathbed, then look
down on me who is at this moment so wretched, and if
I have lived a decent life then relieve me of this
plague and this ruin. What a lethargy
has slithered into every part of my being and
has expunged every ounce of happiness from my heart.
And I do not ask what I know is impossible, that
she love me in return or that she decide to be faithful;
but I want to be well again and put aside this soul-sickness.
Grant me this, oh gods, in answer to my prayer.

I decided to translate the Latin morbum (usually rendered as “sickness”) in the penultimate line as “soul-sickness” because it captures so well the complete misery that Catullus feels at the loss of this relationship. I was reading Daniel Deronda this weekend and the female protagonist of Eliot’s novel rejects a kind, loving, and very eager young suitor named Rex.  When his love is not returned, this twenty year-old decides that he can no longer continue his studies at Oxford and asks his father for permission to run away to the Canadian colonies where he can live off the land in an attempt to get over his sorrows.  When Rex’s father objects to this ridiculous plan and tells his son that love has softened his brain and good sense Eliot writes of him: “What could Rex say?  Inwardly he was in a state of rebellion but he had no arguments to meet his father’s; and while he was feeling, in spite of anything that might be said, that he should like to go off to “the colonies” tomorrow, it lay in a deep fold of his consciousness that he ought to feel—if he had been a better fellow he would have felt—more about his old ties.  This is the sort of faith we live by in our soul-sickness.”

Rex and Catullus, eager, intense, passionate young lovers, are suffering from the same affliction.  I like to think that Catullus would approve of me borrowing Eliot’s phrase, “soul-sickness” to describe his condition.  Catullus does get over Lesbia—he runs off to the colonies, which in his case is Bithynia in Asia Minor and the time away proves to be the best cure for him.  I hope that Rex’s fate in Eliot’s narrative is similar.

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Her Soul Receded into the Winds: Dido’s Suicide in Aeneid Book 4

Henry Fusel. Dido. 1781. Oil on Canvas.

If you haven’t read  The Aeneid then I implore you to do yourself a favor and at least read Book 4.  It is one of my favorite pieces of literature to read in Latin and in English. (I recommend the Fagles translation or the new Ferry translation.)  I won’t go through all of the specific reasons for Dido’s suicide in this book because you really need to read it for yourself to understand the complexity of her situation.  But she does feel hopeless, abandoned, deceived, angry. In the culmination of this heart wrenching scene, Dido climbs on to the top of the funeral pyre on which she has placed all her gifts from Aeneas, the Trojan hero who, at this very same moment, is sailing away from Carthage and from her (these translations are my own):

After she looked down at the Trojan’s robes and the all-too-familiar couch, and with her mind hesitating in tearful recollection, she laid down on that same couch and spoke her final words: “Oh gifts that were dear to me as long as the fates and the gods were allowing, accept my spirt and release me from my sorrows.  I have lived and I have finished the course which Fortune had set out for me, but now my famous soul will go to the underworld.  I have established a famous city, I have looked upon my city’s walls, and having avenged my husband, I exacted punishment from my hateful brother.  Unlucky, oh I am too unlucky—if only those Trojans ships had never reached our shores.” When she finished her speech she pressed a kiss into the couch and said, “I will die unavenged, but let me die anyway. In this way, yes, in this way it eases my pain to approach my death.  I hope that cruel Trojan drinks in this fire with his eyes as he sails away, and I hope he carries with him the omen of my death.” As she had said these things, Dido’s loved ones saw her fall onto Aeneas’s sword while standing in the midst of all his other gifts.  Both the sword and her hands were sprayed with blood.  A shouting reaches all the parts of the palace; the report of her death quickly spreads throughout the shattered city.

Since Dido kills herself, her soul is not allowed to be accompanied to the underworld by Mercury.  Instead the goddess Juno sends Iris to release Dido’s spirit:

Therefore, dewy Iris, dragging thousands of colors against the sun and through the sky with her yellow wings, descends and stands by Dido’s head: “I, having been ordered by Juno to carry out the rituals of the dead, release you from this sword and from your body.”  After Iris said this she cut a lock of Dido’s hair: at the same time all the warmth slipped from her body and her soul receded into the winds.

That last sentence is just beautiful, it gets me every time I translate it.  Please do read it and let me know what you think about Dido’s story.

 

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Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another: Propertius 1.3

Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon. Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli.

Sextus Propertius, a Latin elegiac poet of the Augustan age, is, rather unfortunately, not as well-known as other poets of this era. He was friends with the most famous men of his day including Vergil, Maecenas and Augustus. His talent as an elegist is evident in his four books of poetry which contain 92 poems. I was fortunate enough in graduate school to be in a program that appreciated his work and I took three different classes that focused on this poet. I admit that I haven’t looked at or translated his work in many years, but he seemed like just the thing to suit my mood this week.

In Poem 1.3, he visits his lover, Cynthia, while she is fast asleep in her bedroom. In his amorous and drunken state he is tempted to wake her with a showering of kisses, but holds off for fear of angering her. He, instead, watches her sleep. I find the images of the first 20 lines, comparing her to a sleeping Ariadne and a Bacchante, simple yet sensual and intimate. I offer here my translation of lines 1-20:

Cynthia seemed to me to be breathing softly and quietly while sleeping with her head on her entwined hands; similar to weary Ariadne as she was lying on the deserted shores while Theseus sailed away on his ship; or similar to Andromeda, finally freed from the harsh cliffs, as she was resting during her first sleep; and similar to a Bacchante, exhausted from her continual dances, as she collapses on the grassy banks of the Apidanus. As the slave boys were shaking the torches late into the night, I dragged my feet, drunk with too much Wine, into her room. Not quite yet completely out of my senses, I softly attempted to lie on the bed beside her. Although two relentless gods, Love and Wine, were driving me, seized with a double passion, to disturb Cynthia while she was sleeping and to slip my arm under her and to steal drawn out kisses, I did not dare to interrupt my lover’s rest for fear of incurring the reproaches of her anger with which I am all too familiar. Instead I remained fixed to my spot with my eyes intent upon watching her—I was like Argus, the 100-eyed monster, who kept a vigil over Io with her strange horns.

Propertius’s last few lines, in particular, capture the vulnerability and sensuality of one lover watching another while asleep. It reminds me of the intimacy and trust involved in the experience of sleeping beside another person as described by Quignard in his novel Villa Amalia:

Entrusting one’s sleep to another is perhaps the only real indecency.

To let oneself be watched while sleeping, feeling hungry, dreaming, growing erect or dilated is a strange offering.

She could see his eyes quivering beneath his lids, moving beneath the pale, fragile skin. She could see everything. She could see he was dreaming. Who was he dreaming of? Curiously, she dreamt he dreamt dreams that weren’t dreams of her.

It turned out that he too sighed in his sleep—just like his little daughter.

They both of them gave enormous sighs—like sighs of relinquishment.

Stuart Shotwell’s novel Tomazina’s Folly has, for me, one of the most tender scenes in literature as a woman looks through her lover’s private sketch book in which he has drawn erotic and caring images of his ideal marriage:

As she went on through the book she discovered that a conspicuously recurring theme was that of one spouse watching the other sleep: the wife, sometimes gloriously nude, sometimes fully clothed, either in bed herself or in a chair, watched her husband as he slept; and likewise the husband watching over his wife. There was a tenderness and curiosity and protectiveness in the expression of the watchers, as if they themselves could not sleep, but wanted their spouses to dream undisturbed.

Finally, Jean-Luc Nancy in The Fall of Sleep touches upon the reasons why falling asleep beside another person is an extension of an act of intimacy:

Sleeping together opens up nothing less than the possibility of penetrating into the most intimate part of the other, namely, precisely into his or her sleep. The happy, languid sleep of lovers who sink down together prolongs their loving spasm into a long suspense, into a pause held at the limits of the dissolution and disappearance of their very harmony: intermingled, their bodies insidiously disentangle, however intertwined they can sometimes remain until the end of sleep, until the instant joy returns to them as renewed for having been forgotten, eclipsed during the time of their sleep, where their agile bodies surface again after having been drowned at the bottom of the waters they themselves poured out.

Propertius’s poem ends with his lover waking up, accusing him of being in the embrace of another woman, and complaining that he wasn’t there to fall asleep with her. Cynthia’s wish for him is that he get a taste of his own medicine and that he also experience a lonely night without her in his bed.

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Seneca and Vergil on the Vanquished Trojan Women

Hector, Andromache and Astyanax. Sculpture by Benzoni, 1871. The Met Museum.

As I was looking through my well-worn copy of Seneca’s Troades this morning, my husband remarked in passing that Seneca seems to be my philological equivalent of comfort food.  Last week did happen to be a long and difficult one, but I was also thinking about Seneca in relation to Vergil as I am translating the Aeneid with an exceptionally talented group of students this semester.

Even though Vergil points out time and again that Aeneas suffers many hardships while trying to found a new homeland in Italy, his fate is still far better than the vanquished Trojans who are left behind in that burning city.  The women, in particular, who are divided up among the Greek warriors as plunder, are given special attention by Seneca in his play the Troades.

Of all the women standing on the beach of Troy, the one who has suffered the most, who is the most deserving of sympathy, is Andromache.  Her husband was slain when fighting Achilles in battle and although he died fighting as a hero, this is no consolation to Andromache.  She reminds the other Trojan women that she would have gladly followed her husband to the underworld if it were not for their infant son, Astyanax: (translation is my own)

Oh pathetic crowd of Trojan women,
why do you tear at your hair and strike
your wretched breasts and moisten your
faces with effusive tears? We have suffered
trivial things if we can endure them by
simply weeping. Ilium fell only just
now for you but the city died for me
a long time ago, when that savage man,
Achilles, seized my husband’s limbs with
his rapid chariot and, trembling, its
axel groaned with a heavy sound because
of Hector’s weight. It was at that very
moment—overwhelmed and overcome,
dazed and frozen by disaster, knocked out
of my senses—I was forced to endure
whatever happens. I would follow my husband
even now, escaping the Greeks, if this
child were not holding me back. It is this
child that subdues my spirit and prevents
me from dying. It is this child that
compels me to ask favors from the gods even
now and he has postponed my time of distress.
It is this child that has stolen from me
the greatest reward of my suffering,
that I had nothing to fear. Any chance at
happiness has been snatched away from me and
only dreadful things are still to come.
Fear is the most wretched experience when
one has nothing to hope for.

Andromache, I think, is one of the most pathetic and tragic characters in the Iliad and the scene in which she and her son bid Hector farewell is one of the most poignant in the entire epic.  She is equally worthy of sympathy in Seneca’s play and she puts the situation in perspective for the other Trojan women: suffering is individual and it is also relative.  It is Vergil, later in his epic, that gives her a new story of hope, a future  beyond Troy, with another man and another, entirely different, yet happy life.  Andromache becomes an additional example of ruins in motion that I wrote about for my Seagull essay. 

For the extra curious, here is a link to the Latin text:

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2007.01.0011%3Acard%3D371

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Io Saturnalia: My Translation of Catullus Poem 14a

John Reinhard Weguelin. The Roman Saturnalia. 1884.

The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia held on December 17th in the Julian calendar involved decorating, partying, eating, gift giving and general conviviality.   This special day, gradually expanded to a full week, was dedicated to the agricultural deity Saturn whose temple in the Forum was the center of sacrifices for the holiday.  A general spirit of frivolity was felt throughout the city as Romans of all classes participated in the merrymaking.  Catullus, the 1st century B.C. poet, calls Saturnalia the “best of days.” In his Carmen 14a, Catullus describes his great annoyance when his friend, Calvus, gives him a joke gift—a book of bad poetry!—for Saturnalia.  Catullus then plots the sweet revenge he will inflict upon Calvus (Translation is my own):

Oh Calvus, if I didn’t love you more than my own eyes
I would hate you as much as I hate that guy Vatinianus.
What could I have possibly said or done to make you
destroy me with so much bad poetry?  May the gods
do very bad things to that client of yours who originally
sent you this wicked gift.  Because if, as I suspect, Sulla
the elementary school teacher gave this new and well-chosen
gift to you then this situation has not turned out so badly
for me, and, in fact, it is good and fortuitous, and your
efforts are not in vain. Oh great gods, what a horrible
and accursed little book! That very book which I am
convinced you sent to your friend Catullus on this best
of days, Saturnalia, so that I might die again and again
on this day!  I will not, absolutely not, let this go,
you trickster.  As soon as it is light out, I am running
to the bookshop and collecting all the poisonous poetry I can
find for you—Suffenus and Caesius and Aquinus.  I will
pay you back with these punishments!  And as for you,
bad poets, goodbye! Go away!  Go back to that place where
you got your bad feet, the troubles of our generation,
you absolute worst of all poets!

We know from his other poems that Calvus is one of Catullus’s most dear and well-respected friends.  In addition to being a poet, Calvus is also a lawyer and Vatinianus who is mentioned in the first few lines in the poem is an odious man that Calvus once prosecuted.  Catullus considers Calvus an excellent poet and the two close friends would have contests and challenge each other to poetry duels.  A book of lousy poetry seems a fitting joke gift between these men.  What makes Calvus’s gift especially bad (and funny) is that he regifted it!  Catullus calls Calvus out in the poem for his regifting—Calvus received the book as payment from one of his clients, named Sulla, and Calvus then passes the book off to Catullus.  Catullus also calls Sulla, the original giver of the books,  an elementary school teacher, which in ancient Rome is an insult to Sulla’s intelligence.  The part of the poem that has always amazed me is that Catullus threatens to get Calvus back by emptying the bookshop of every bad piece of poetry he can find, and he names names!  Of the three he mentions, Suffenus is the poet whose writing we know the most about; in Carmen 22, Catullus describes Suffenus’s verse as akin to lines composed by a goat herder or ditch digger.  Oh to have seen the look on Calvus’s face when he reads that book of poetry.  Nice burn, Catullus!

To all of my fellow readers: Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.  May you receive lots of excellent books of poetry during your Saturnalia celebrations!

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